The Big Shakeup


A Tremulous Motion

Which would you rather have, a bursting planet or an earthquake here and there?

- John Joseph Lynch

by Barry Hawkins

In 1855 Wellington swayed under the might of New Zealand's biggest recorded earthquake.  The stories of those who survived are included in a new book.

The Richardson family of Mulgrave Street, Wellington, were taking tea at about 9:17pm, on 23 January 1855.  George Richardson recalled it started with "a tremendous motion" which quickly turned to a most terrific shaking.  "The piano came into the middle of the room, and the crashing of earthenware and glass, the creaking and rocking of the house caused a most fearful and terrifying noise.  This continued nearly two minutes..."

Civil engineer William Bennett was sitting with a friend in an Oriental Bay boarding house.  A nor'westerly wind was buffeting the building.  "Suddenly it gave a very extraordinary shake, which seemed to continue, and was accompanied by a fearful noise."  The shaking increased in violence and was accompanied by a roaring "as if a large number of cannon were being fired near together."  It was like being in "an ill-adjusted railway carriage on a badly laid railway at a very high speed."

These were the survivors of New Zealand's mega quake which released an energy pulse 1,000 times more powerful than the Hiroshima atomic bomb.

The world also tumbled down around the D'Arcy family in their four-bedroom wooden house in Te Aro.  "The chimney collapsed, bricks falling into the parlour and covering everything with dust.  Pictures leapt from the walls, ornaments on the shelf were thrown into the centre of the room, chairs, tables and everything movable fell or were tossed about..."

There was no escape, even for ships moored in Lambton Harbour.  Lieutenant Morton-Jones, of the HMS Pandora, said the barque was jolted by a sudden and very severe vibration.  "The Pandora slewed broadside to the wind setting all the ship's bells ringing and causing panic below."  To Morton-Jones it was as though they had run aground though they were anchored in six fathoms.

Accounts of the first Big One - the mega quake which wrought havoc on Wellington and central New Zealand, and rattled much of the rest of the country - feature in Dr Rodney Grapes' new book, Magnitude Eight Plus, the story New Zealand's biggest recorded earthquake.  Grapes, an Associate Professor of Earth Sciences at Victoria University, says people are fascinated by "large catastrophic forces out of control", especially, it might be assumed, in Wellington where residents are regularly urged to prepare for the Big One.

It's not a matter of whether a massive earthquake will strike, they are told, but when.  The "things-to-do-in-an-emergency" section of the Yellow Pages is likely to be more thumbed through here than elsewhere.  The precautions listed are sensible, but puny, in the face of the elemental forces Grapes describes.

The city's early settlers, along with residents of the southern part of the North Island and the top half of the South Island in particular, didn't have long to wait to find out how vulnerable they were.  Grapes graphically sums up the precise moment: "A few seconds before 9:17pm, at a depth of 25km below Cook Strait, some 40km southwest of Wellington, a large section of the earth's crust suddenly ruptured, releasing an energy pulse 1,000 times more powerful than the Hiroshima atomic bomb.  "The shock wave radiated outwards and upwards at a speed approaching six km per second."

There had been earlier big quakes.  In 1843, a couple died when when their house in Wanganui was swept away in an earthquake-triggered landslide.  Three years later, Wellington residents fled into the streets as their houses swayed and the ground rocked.  This was a foretaste of another serious earthquake in 1848 which wrecked buildings and killed two children.

But there had been nothing to compare to the mayhem which struck the fledgling settlement less than a decade later.

According to one observer, "if Wellington has been subject to six hours of bombardment from a Russian fleet [the Crimean War was raging at the time] it could not have suffered to the same extent."  The death toll could have been much worse - estimated at between 5 and 10, compared with 17 in the Buller quake of 1929, and 256 in the Napier disaster in 1931.

Despite the terror, the aftershocks and the doubts the disaster must have raised in many of their minds about the wisdom of their journey across the world, Wellington was quickly rebuilt.  A view two years later of Te Aro, probably the hardest hit, reveals little sign of the mayhem.  The rebuilt, mainly wooden houses, were spick and span and it was pretty much business as usual.

What sort of devastation would the same magnitude earthquake cause today?

Grapes says the chances for buildings on rock are "reasonable."  Hardest hit are likely to be those on the alluvium in the Te Aro area where Te Papa is located, around Courtenay Place and seaward of the old shoreline in Lambton Quay.  I'm not saying the buildings are going to fall down but the degree of shaking might cause considerable damage inside those buildings," he says.

Grapes wrote the book out of his interest in the earthquake's geological effects.  The initial research analysis, done with Gaye Downes, of the Institute of Geological and Nuclear Sciences, was published n in the earthquake engineers' bulletin.  He wants the information in the book to be "available" to the public.

"As it was supposed to be New Zealand's largest earthquake I thought perhaps I could give a fairly good and balanced account of it, simply from the contemporary accounts."

What hope of accurate earthquake prediction?

Grapes says New Zealand had big earthquakes which probably occurred in clusters.  "But just because we had only 142 years since the [big] quake doesn't mean we have to wait another 1500 years for the next one.  "The idea of a regular recurrent interval is probably not valid, though we don't have a long enough history - that's the problem.  "Japan goes back a couple of thousand years.  You begin to see some patterns if any patterns are going to emerge at all..."

Magnitude Eight Plus, New Zealand's Biggest Earthquake, by Rodney Grapes (Victoria University Press, $29.95).

Source: The Evening Post Wednesday 2 August 2000; no credit was given to a photographer for either photo in the article.

Between the time I prepared this page and the time I put it up on the website, India suffered a major earthquake with victims numbering in at least the tens of thousands.  Someday, that could be us?

New Zealand over the Next 4 Million Years?

Click to begin

Source: NZ division of Geological and Nuclear Sciences visit their website for more tidbits of interest

Earthquake Frequency: Global Yearly Average

Type Magnitude Average
Great 8+
Major 7 - 7.9 17²
Strong 6 - 6.9 134²
Moderate 5 - 5.9 1,319²
Light 4 - 4.9 13,000*
Minor 3 - 3.9 130,000*
Very Minor 2 - 2.9 1,300,000*

¹ Based on observations since 1900
² Based on observations since 1990
* Estimated

Source: Live Science from USGS

The article on the page following this one, Preparing for the Inevitable, explains the Richter scale.

See also:

bulletTornado! (from the section on the environment) - "My house takes an F-1 tornado.  In an F-3 tornado, our interior hallway is almost certainly survivable, although we may lose a good part of the house," Brooks said.  "In an F-5 tornado, we're dead if we're there."
bulletHurricane (also from the environment section) - ...thousands of people died in a storm whose winds reached perhaps as much as 150 miles an hour, and which produced a storm surge of some 20 feet, washing away houses and the people in them...

For satellite photos and pictures of Wellington from several different angles and for articles about earthquakes, history, business, the Ohariu Valley, statistics, fireworks, the national anthem, the kiwi icon and more click the "Up" button below to take you to the Table of Contents for this Wellington section.

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